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Buffalo's Puerto Rican community awaits word from loved ones hit by Maria

When Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico, Chito Olivencia was up all night calling friends and family in his little hometown of Hormigueros to make sure everyone was okay.

"I couldn't get anybody," said Olivencia, a longtime leader in Buffalo's Puerto Rican community.

Lucy Candelario has been trying to reach her cousin, Roger, in Humacao, located along the eastern coast of the island. Still no word as of late Thursday.

And Casimiro Rodriguez Sr. has a sister, Doris, living in the hard-hit area of Guayama. He hasn't been able to reach her.

"We were pretty much all in the dark yesterday because 100 percent of the power in Puerto Rico went out," said Rodriguez, president of the Hispanic Heritage Council of Western New York. "The phone lines are pretty much busy, busy, busy and we're not able to get through."

Those frustrations and fears are being told and retold across Buffalo, which has strong ties to Puerto Rico and waits for any scrap of news from television or social media that might provide more information about the extent of damage to the hurricane-ravaged U.S. territory.

With sustained winds of 155 mph, it was the first Category 4 storm to directly strike Puerto Rico since 1932.

"You can't describe when you're visually seeing all this happening on television and not being able to communicate with loved ones," said Candelario, executive director of the Belle Center on Maryland Street. "It's really excruciating."

"The people here are very concerned," Rodriguez said. "We feel very helpless."

All they can do is offer their help from afar.

Members of the Puerto Rican community gathered Wednesday night and again Thursday morning at the Olivencia Community Center on Swan Street to discuss relief efforts.

"People are talking about how they can help. Everybody is reaching out and asking what they can do," Candelario said. "We can have our differences in the community, but when a situation like this happens, we bond together so fast."

Olivencia, a longtime member of the Democratic Party with ties to the government in Puerto Rico, said he received more than 100 calls on Wednesday, many from people hoping he might have news about friends and loved ones on the island.

Others asked to donate money.

"One-thousand dollars, $500," Olivencia  said. "There wasn’t anything under $100. It's just amazing how people want to help."

Details of the relief effort are expected to be outlined Friday morning at a scheduled news conference.

Nearly 46,000 Hispanics live in Erie County, according to the Census Bureau, and about 70 percent are Puerto Rican.

Buffalo, like other U.S. cities, has seen a steady increase in people from Puerto Rico over the past decade, as a weak economy and prolonged recession have forced many to the mainland.

The Buffalo Public Schools, in particular, has noticed the influx of Spanish-speaking students, and - with Puerto Rico now devastated by the hurricane - is preparing for more.

The entire island felt the wrath of the hurricane and restoring power to everyone could take months.

"Absolutely, we're going to see an influx," said Nadia Nashir, assistant superintendent for multilingual education in the district. " Our families here in Buffalo will say, 'As soon as  you're able to get out, come here.'"

In fact, Nashir said, the district already has seen signs of that, pointing to three families who got out of Puerto Rico prior to the storm and registered in the school district within the past several days.

After so much economic instability in Puerto Rico, Rodriguez doesn't know how the island is going to bounce back from the destruction caused by Maria.

But, he said, Buffalo will be ready to help.

"One of the heartbreaking parts is we're in the midst of Hispanic Heritage Month," Rodriguez said. "We just kicked it off last Friday. Now, we have a crisis to deal with."

"But what better way to celebrate than to help those in need," Rodriguez said. "That's the way I'm going to look at it."

 

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